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These stories were published Tuesday, April 22, 2003, in Vol. 3, No. 78
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Making records public worries some
Privacy is just another name for power
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some Costa Ricans became upset last week when they learned that a credit reporting firm had purchased masses of information on Ticos and residents of nine other Latin countries.

Some Mexican politicians are even more upset. A.M. Costa Rica wire services report (BELOW) that opposition parties in Mexico are demanding an investigation into the sale of voter registration information to a firm in the United States that then sold the data to the U.S. government. The alleged data sale is seen by many Mexicans as an intrusion on the nation's sovereignty.


An analysis on the news


In both Costa Rica and in Mexico the name Choicepoint has come up. This is believed to be the private firm commissioned by the U.S. government to accumulate information for the U.S. Immigration Service, which now is part of the Homeland Security Department. Choicepoint did not respond to a request for information by this newspaper.

Mexican officials are concerned by the sale of driving license information and of election data.

This latest flap clearly shows the love-hate relationship that politicians have with public data. Now that computers can handle billions of data bites in a second, public records does not mean someone poring through dusty books in some back office.

But information is not about driving records. It is about power. If data is public, the people have the power. If the data is secret, the politicians have the power. And governments everywhere collect masses of information.

The issue is important as Costa Rica moves toward some form of freedom of information act and a restructuring of the courts.

It may come as a surprise to North Americans that court files here are only open to those involved in the case. In the United States at least  anyone can check on the progress of a case by consulting the court files and by attending preliminary court sessions. Here that is not allowed. Only parties in interest and their lawyers can see the files. Only infrequently in 

the United States does a judge seal a court file.

The information here in the Registro Civil likewise is restricted. This includes birth, death, marriage and voting records.

A democracy needs an abundance of information so citizens can make informed decisions. It is not enough to make available summaries and information in general terms.

Sometimes that is messy. The particulars of a divorce case frequently are seamy. Public officials do not like mere citizens knowing the amount of their salary or the amount of their monthly expense check.

But revelations like this keep the system honest. Public records at a jail keep officials from "losing" a political protestor. Public records of land ownership tell the world who has the right to be on the property.

Of course, with the wholesale forgeries of ownership documents that makes Costa Rica infamous, the system can be distorted. But with open records, forgeries can be uncovered more rapidly.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act, an imperfect document, has been further distorted by the George Bush administration because of worries that terrorists will learn secrets to help with attacks. The more likely scenario is that politicians will more easily hide their failures.

A reporter said Monday that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation inexplicably denied him access to certain parts of the agency’s file on former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who died in September 1947.

A good bet is that any Costa Rica freedom of information act will be a watered down version that looks good on paper but still safeguards the power of the politicians to use secret information for their own advantages.

Mexico wrestles with sale of public information
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — Opposition parties here are demanding an investigation into the sale of voter registration information to a firm in the United States that then sold the data to the U.S. government. The alleged data sale is seen by many Mexicans as an intrusion on the nation's sovereignty. 

The story of the voter registration data purchase emerged in a Milenio newspaper investigative report last week. According to the report, the U.S. government commissioned a private company known as Choicepoint to obtain Mexican voter registration information and other data. The alleged request for this data came from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has now been absorbed by the new Homeland Security Department. 

Choicepoint has acknowledged purchasing data on Mexico's 65 million registered voters as well as data on six million licensed drivers in Mexico City. The company says the transaction was carried out with a private Mexican company and that it was within the law. The company denies having obtained any such information directly from a Mexican government source.

Alejandro Encinas, Mexico City's Secretary of 

Government, however, says Choicepoint is a company with what he calls a "dark past."

He says city officials are investigating how the information on drivers' licenses was obtained and he called on the Mexican federal government to investigate the sale of data from the nation's electoral institute.

Opposition party leaders have called on President Vicente Fox to ask the United States why it was seeking this data. Legislators from the Institutional Revolutionary Party and the Party of the Democratic Revolution have expressed outrage over the sale of voter data, insisting that such information should be confidential and kept in Mexico. 

The Mexican Federal Electoral Institute has filed a criminal complaint against anyone found to have sold the voter data to Choicepoint. Meanwhile, the federal prosecutor in charge of election-related crimes has launched an investigation and is seeking cooperation from the United States. 

The scandal over the electoral data sale comes less than three months before important mid-term elections in Mexico. Electoral officials, however, say the sale of voter registration information should have no effect on the elections set for July 6. 

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A status report
Can Villalobos win by becoming a political refugee?
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Can Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho beat the system by claiming he is a political refugee?

That seems to be one possible thrust of the persistent recounting by the faithful of allegations that a government conspiracy ran the fugitive financier out of town.

The conspiracy theory was last recounted by a Pittsburgh, Pa., lawyer in an unusual demand March 19 to President Abel Pacheco. The lawyer said in a letter that unless Pacheco interceded to get the lawyer’s client $8 million that had been invested with Villalobos, bad publicity would be circulated about Pacheco and Costa Rica. That story was reported Monday.

The threat by the lawyer was so lame it left many shaking their heads wondering what was his strategy.

Similar claims that Villalobos and his brother Oswaldo are victims have been aired frequently in Internet chats. An effort by lawyer José Miguel Villalobos Umaña on behalf of the United Concerned Citizens & Residents of Costa Rica begins with the presumption that Villalobos is innocent and perhaps the victim of a conspiracy.

Lawyer Villalobos is working with the Pittsburgh lawyer, according to the letter sent to Pacheco. Lawyer Villalobos himself said several months ago that there is no evidence of criminality in the Villalobos court file.

But other lawyers point out that no one but the prosecutors and investigators have access to the criminal file that will be used to build a case against Villalobos. That file is not at the court and is secret.

Prosecutors have said very little about the Villalobos case, and they are the only ones really in the know.

Some of the estimated 6,500 Villalobos investors truly believe that the financier is innocent. Others say that rather than admit their investment has vanished. Others have accepted the theory that Villalobos was engaged in money laundering to generate the 3 percent per month interest he paid for years to his predominately North American investors.

However, there seems to be a steady drumbeat on the Internet proclaiming his innocence, and that seems to come from sources in contact with Villalobos lawyers.

If Villalobos is arrested elsewhere, he may be able to use the conspiracy theory to avoid extradition back to Costa Rica. Some countries will not extradite persons they believe are mainly political prisoners. 

The Pittsburgh lawyer, Peter K. Blume, presented that theory in a proposed news release that characterized Villalobos as innocent. ". . . with the newly elected president, Abel Pacheco, having strong ties to the financial institutions, the large banks finally brought enough pressure on the government to force the closure of the Brothers’ businesses and a move to confiscate the operation, which had grown to an estimated $1 billion . . ," said the press release.

Luis Enrique fled into exile so that he could remain in a position to fight for his clients as well as his brother, who was arrested and put in jail, said the press release. The release outlines a sprawling conspiracy in which local banks, specifically Scotia Bank and Banco Cathay, worked to shut down the Villalobos operations.

None of these allegations is supported with evidence.

But the theory may play well in a foreign court when judges are asked to approve extradition of the fugitive Villalobos to Costa Rica to face charges of fraud and money laundering.

Arrests prompt probe by Tico security agency
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rica’s security agency has taken over the investigation of two men arrested under unusual circumstances in Jacó April 12.

That was confirmed Monday by a spokesman for the Judicial Investigating Organization. The spokesman said that his agency has passed the investigation to the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional, best described as Costa Rica’s Central Intelligence Agency.

The two men prompted suspicions that they were acting on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, said the spokesman.

Fuerza Pública officers arrested the pair in Jacó that Saturday while the duo were in a car going down the main street of town near the Super "Las
Olas."

Officers claimed they had received an anonymous telephone tip, but a better explanation is that some other investigative agency had called in the local 

police in order to terminate a surveillance.

The arrests came about the same time that the Tempisque Bridge, built as a gift by the government of Taiwan, opened up. That bridge is about 80 miles north of Jacó.

The two men, both in their 30s, had no identification papers except a Costa Rican driver’s license that officials announced was a forged document. All information on the arrest came from the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública, which supervises the Fuerza Pública. 

Police said that they found two checks and some $1,000 in what they said was counterfeit U.S. currency. 

The fact that the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional took over the investigation suggests that at least Costa Ricans think that the two men might have some connection with significant illegal activities. U.S. officials are believed to be paying attention to the investigation.


 
 
Publicity over girl, 9,
irks Casa Alianza

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Casa Alianza has complained against the Televisíon Nacional de Chile for having aired the name and photos of a 9-year-old child who became pregnant in Costa Rica.

The organization said that the Consejo Nacional de Televisión de Chile agreed to make a charge against the station.

The television station gave the name and surnames of the girl, said Casa Alianza. The girl became big news when her parents took her from Costa Rica to Nicaragua where an abortion was performed.

Bruce Harris, Latin American director for Casa Alianza, said he asked the station not to violate the rights of the child March 13, the same night that the station aired a program called "Con mucho cariño" that discussed the case.

Despite the telephone call by Harris, the station posted photos of the child and her parents on its Web site, said a release from Casa Alianza.

Casa Alianza said that the child went from Nicaragua to Chile to accept an invitation to appear on the television shop under the auspices of several women’s groups. But the mother and stepfather went on television without considering the damage that this would cause to the little girl, according to Casa Alianza.

"The child was exhibited as if she was being treated like an object or merchandise and the minimal respect for her image was not observed," said Harris, who called the treatment cruel and inhuman.

Casa Alianza and a Chilean organization pressed the case under an international treaty over the rights of children. The television station management has five days to reply to the charge, said Casa Alianza.

Global warming floods
are topic of study

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States is helping finance a project in conjunction with the World Bank to counter the destructive effects of global warming in the Caribbean. Although Costa Rica is not involved, the project has significance for the Caribbean coast.

The climate change project will benefit 12 small island and low-lying countries in the region, the bank said in a statement Friday. Those countries are: Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The bank said that throughout the Caribbean region, global warming is expected to cause significant changes both in sea temperatures and sea levels and to intensify extreme weather events such as floods, heavy rains, and hurricanes. As a result, both natural ecosystems and man-made projects will be at increased risk. The project helps Caribbean nations plan how to counteract these climate changes.

The project is being financed by a $5-million grant to be administered by the Caribbean Community trading bloc. That money is supplemented by grants of $800,000 from the United States, $2 million from Canada, and $3.15 million from Caribbean governments.
 

There still is time for taxes

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

U.S. citizens who failed to file their 2002 tax return by April 15 may be in luck.

U.S. citizens who live outside the United States are entitled to an automatic extension of time to file to June 15, according to the current tax code.

The date applies to citizens who file based on the calendar year. Despite the extension, anyone who takes advantage of the extra two months still has to pay interest on any taxes owed after April 15.
 

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U.S. educators miffed at tighter U.S. visa policy
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Changes in U.S. visa policy and new information requirements for international students and scholars in the United States must not hamper legitimate education exchange, says a group of international educators.

Government officials and leaders of international education organizations, meeting in a forum on "Sustaining Exchanges While Securing Borders" in Washington Friday, agreed that "secure borders" and "open doors" — two goals of U.S. visa policy — are not mutually exclusive. They called for the United States to more effectively communicate visa policies, to introduce transparency into visa application procedures, and to adjudicate visas in a more timely manner.

The forum at George Washington University explored how the government and exchange organizations might work to minimize the negative impacts of security measures on legitimate international exchanges.

Opening the conference, McKinney Russell, president of the Public Diplomacy Council, said that nurturing "a true spirit of engagement and dialogue" with the world through welcoming students and visitors to the U.S. is "essential to our growth as a nation and indeed to our survival."

But he warned that security challenges post-Sept. 11 have "complicated the flow and flowering of exchanges." Common frustrations were voiced by representatives from organizations as diverse as the World Health Organization, the National Endowment for the Arts and various educational institutions that have experienced difficulties in obtaining visas for foreign participants in conferences or international exchange activities held in the United States.

From Chinese scientists unable to receive a visa to Armenian folk singers unable to participate in a summer cultural festival, exchange organizations expressed similar frustrations and embarrassment at not being able to receive visas in a timely manner.

"Do we just give up coming to the U.S.?" asked one participant, expressing frustration that a Danish children's theater group and other performing arts groups have been denied visas to enter the United States.

Participants demanded that clear rules and predictable processes be implemented in U.S. visa policy.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary for consular affairs at the U.S. State Department, said the United States values visitors from overseas, and 

she outlined government efforts taken to achieve both security and openness.

"We are an open society. We welcome the diversity and richness of experience that attends international exchange. We must not, as Secretary [of State Colin Powell] Powell has said so eloquently, become a gated America," Harty said.

Discussing changes since Sept. 11, 2001, the assistant secretary said the United States now requires more information from all applicants and puts more emphasis on the visa interview.

While fewer than 2.5 percent of visa applicants worldwide are referred for additional background checks through interagency review, Harty said that "glitches in interagency communications" have resulted in significant delays for those applicants, particularly toward the end of 2002.

But she said the government has "made great strides" toward solving these problems and at present 80 percent of these cases are cleared within two weeks of application.

"We are making continued improvements in the efficiency of this process, without sacrificing anything in thoroughness," added Harty.

In response to rumors that the United States is denying visas to large numbers of applicants indiscriminately, Harty said, "the reality is that the laws relevant to visa eligibility have changed only slightly since Sept. 11."

"While procedures have been tightened substantially, we have made every effort to minimize inconvenience to the applicant," said Harty. The United States continues to welcome legitimate visa applicants and issues millions of visas, she said. "We want to facilitate legitimate travel just as we want to identify those who might want to do this country harm."

In response to a question on the embarrassment and humiliation some visitors feel upon entry to the U.S. due to fingerprinting or interviews that might take place, Harty said that entering the United States is "not meant to be a demeaning experience."

"To the degree that we can make the process predictable, that we can inform people before they travel of what they might expect when they arrive at a point of entry," Harty said, the anxiety associated with legitimate travel can be minimized.

She encouraged potential visitors to check a new Web site, www.unitedstatesvisas.gov, designed as a single point of access to information about U.S. visa policy and procedures. "America remains an open and welcoming country," she said.

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